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Tales From the Judges' Chambers

Tales From the Judges' Chambers

Kathy Martin | The Miami Herald

I spent the weekend in the land of food contests, a sweetly American place where you can aim high, try hard and win big whether you cook on a hot plate or a high-end range.

My passport was an invitation to chair the judging panel for the 48th National Chicken Cooking Contest in San Antonio, Texas; my traveling companion, a paperback copy of a memoir by the million-dollar winner of a Pillsbury Bake-Off I had helped decide. It was quite a trip.

With its $50,000 grand prize, the biannual chicken competition is among the most lucrative. Sponsored by the National Chicken Council, an industry group, it is intended to promote chicken and spotlight poultry-cooking trends. (Organizers proudly note that chicken pizza and chicken nuggets were NCCC winners well before they became menu staples.)

We judges (I was joined by food folks from The Dallas Morning News and Family Circle, Parents and Woman’s World magazines) had nine dishes to consider. Three were nice but not special, two succumbed to overkill (too many ingredients, too much fuss) and one was off the table once we discovered the chicken wasn’t fully cooked.

That left a Mediterranean chicken and bread salad we liked quite a lot but found a bit too familiar; a butterflied, roasted whole chicken topped with honey-glazed lemon slices to which we gave the $10,000 Judges’ Choice Award, and our grand prize winner, Chinese Chicken Burgers With Rainbow Sesame Slaw.

It was a clear choice for the simple reason that those burgers were absolutely delicious – one of those dishes you want to keep eating even though you aren’t a bit hungry. We liked the fact that they used economical ground chicken, just as we had liked the budget-friendly whole chicken in our Judges’ Choice winner, but what really mattered was the taste.

The burgers sang with the harmonious flavors of garlic, scallions, lemon grass, soy sauce, sesame oil and a touch of sugar. A hoisin glaze amplified the Asian effect, while a smear of chili- and lime-spiked mayo and a layer of crunchy slaw provided counterpoint. It was a tour de force in a bun.

I was reminded of Salsa Couscous Chicken, a dish with a mouthwatering Moroccan flavor profile that had won the 1998 Pillsbury Bake-Off for Ellie Mathews, author of my airplane paperback, The Ungarnished Truth (Berkley, $15). Eleven years later, I still recall how much better her dish tasted than the others in the quick-meal category I helped judge that year in Orlando.